The following review appeared 8 December 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Gregg Camfield <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Pennsylvania
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Reading criticism or preparing a course syllabus, it is all too easy to
think of Mark
Twain exclusively as a novelist jack-leg, perhaps, but novelist
year I receive, unsolicited, mountains of new and improved editions of
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
and Connecticut Yankee,
and I've recently been asked by yet another publisher if there is a market
another edition of one of Twain's most famous novels. As much as I like to
in print, I almost hope not because the impulse of the publishing and
scholarly worlds to focus on Twain's novels distorts Twain's achievement.
Any honest assessment
of Twain's work must agree with Tom Quirk's belief that, "as if by
seems to have been naturally adept in virtually every prose genre the
sketch, the tale, the anecdote, the maxim, the philosophical dialogue, the
essay, the speech and
to have understood generic requirements sufficiently to burlesque and
as well" (p. xi). But as much as Twain was a master of numerous
the lack of good, inexpensive volumes of shorter works has left a huge gap
in the college
course syllabus. Quirk's volume may well serve to fill that gap.
Granted, there are other collections of Twain's short works, from the definitive, expensive, and as yet incomplete Mark Twain Project editions published by the University of California Press, to the magisterial, nearly comprehensive, textually accurate, huge, and still very expensive Collected Tales in the Library of America series, to Charles Neider's cheap but shoddy collections, to the volume I have used for years in my teaching, Harper's Great Short Works of Mark Twain, edited by Justin Kaplan. All of these volumes have shortcomings for classroom use, either in cost or in quality. While the California edition and Louis J. Budd's Library of America edition are the ones for a scholarly and personal library respectively, Quirk's edition may be the best for the classroom. Unlike either Neider's or Kaplan's editions, Quirk's edition gives us trustworthy texts and gives us the publishing contexts we need to be able to use them well, but he does not gum up the texts themselves with unneeded annotation nor with cumbersome interpretive headnotes. The collection allows the reader to read, and gives its auxiliary information unobtrusively, in a select bibliography for further reading, in a note on the texts, and in a delightful introductory essay that shows off Quirk's talents as much as it illuminates Twain's.
Indeed, the introductory essay is worth the price of the book for any Twain fan. Like so many of Quirk's articles on Twain, it is an essay in the best sense of the word. It easily serves its ostensible purpose, namely, to explain his selections of texts, with ease and grace. It then transcends that purpose in delivering well turned observations that give bright glimpses into the heart of Twain over the entirety of his career. Quirk's voice seems attuned to Mark Twain's strengths as conversationalist and raconteur, and while he seems to familiarize us with Mark, he is also alive to the contradictions, frustrations, and lapses that also are so much a part of Twain's work.
Quirk tells us that "The selections gathered together here are meant to give a comprehensive if somewhat uneven sense of the vast range of Mark Twain's short fiction and prose, to disclose not merely the variety of his imaginative invention and diverse talents but the range of his emotional condition as well" (p. xi). Certainly this volume does all that. And in its selections, it acknowledges the recent shifts in interest in Twain studies, giving us not the tidied up Twain of the Harper and Brothers' tradition, but a much messier, wilder author.
Quirk begins with some examples of Twain's early journalism, including "Letter from Carson City," and "Washoe `Information Wanted,'" before moving on to the first full version of the jumping frog story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog." He also gives us a sample of the off- color Twain in "[Date, 1601] Conversation, as It Was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors." It's good to know that this sketch will finally be readily available, so that when people ask if Twain really did write about sex and flatulence, it will be easy to point them to the source (of sorts though why Twain so liked to juxtapose ejaculation with flatulence I'll leave to Freud or Bakhtin). Quirk also gives us "Sociable Jimmy," the newspaper sketch that Shelley Fisher Fishkin has recently brought to our attention for the light it sheds on Huck, and he includes a generous selection of Twain's aphorisms, which are usually relegated to compendia of quotations, like The Columbia Encyclopedia of Quotations or The Portable Curmudgeon. The long and short of this volume, then, is that Quirk has produced an anthology that is up-to-date in giving us a picture of Twain as we are coming to understand him.
These additions to the expected contents of a book of Twain's shorter works do not crowd out many of the old favorites, but things do get crowded out. Of course, no anthology ever fully satisfies, because the very process of selection means one person's choice will defy another's. And while I know that selection is a necessity, I still must complain that Quirk chose so sparingly from the series of articles known collectively as "Old Times on the Mississippi." As a teacher, I always have wanted a good, cheap text of those articles without the encumbrance of the rest of Life on the Mississippi. I've always felt that those articles were the apex of Twain's art in shorter forms. For this otherwise excellent volume to leave me with little from "Old Times" means I'll have to go back to the copy-shops to supplement the syllabus. Still, this is not a bad price to pay for an otherwise useful anthology.
For the most part, the selections in the volume are organized chronologically, rather than by subject or genre. This organization is, I think, a strength in that it becomes easier on reading the entire book to see patterns and shifts in Twain's writing over time. Given the value of such a structure, I was puzzled by the one lapse in the organization: the last six selections in the book are tucked under a sub-head, "On Writing and Writers." Why does one topic get separate treatment, especially since it suggests that these comments on writing are somehow out of the chronology of the rest of Twain's output? The problem with the organizational anomaly is compounded by a significant gaff made by the book's designers when they prepared the layout for the Table of Contents. The Table of Contents appears to end on p. vii with the entry for "The Death of Jean," followed by a significant amount of blank space running to the end of the page. No reader would expect to turn the page to find what looks like a second table of contents to cover the essays on writers and writing, but there it is, isolated by the unaccountable white space. While this may seem a minor quibble, a book that has no index needs a user-friendly Table of Contents. I hope Penguin corrects this problem in future printings.
Such complaints notwithstanding, I find the book not only useful but a pleasure. It's always a pleasure to read Twain, but it's even more pleasurable to see the surprising range of Twain between two covers. This volume has enough variety for every mood, so it is perfect not only for course adoption, but also as a travelling companion, as a back-pocket book, as Mark Twain for the airplane. That's how I have used it so far; I expect it to become a well used companion though I doubt I'll ever use its "Map of Paris" for real guidance.